Letter from London

From a global perspective people think – erroneously – of New York as the theater capital par excellence. Well, it is not. Surely, based on the number of offerings, the title should go to Athens. But this is only because of some sort of cultural inflation. There are actually far too many – bad – theaters in Athens. But, judging by the quality of the performances, the highest theatrical excellence in the world has been attained by London. And the British continue to produce some of the greatest actors as well. At the beginning of last week Helen Mirren picked up two Golden Globes for her roles as queens Elizabeth I and II. The 61-year-old is now a firm favorite for an Oscar. Stephen Frears’s film «The Queen» – about the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales – opened the Film Festival in Thessaloniki in November and was a big success in Athens as well. In some 100 theaters across the city of London, plays, musicals and «fringe» are staged non-stop. Tourists interested in «catching a few shows» are generally better acquainted with London’s West End (also known as Theaterland) which boasts approximately 50 theaters and is genuinely buzzing at the moment. Some might argue that there are too many musicals but they are really good musicals. And people are buying tickets. However, it is in the South Bank and the Royal National Theater on the South Bank of the Thames where one can see real art in action. The National comprises three theaters within one building (the Olivier, the Lyttelton and the more Spartan studio theater Cottesloe showcase a wide range of British and international works. «Coram Boy,» based on the book by Jamila Gavin and adapted by Helen Edmundson, has been a real crowd pleaser, brilliantly performed by a large cast, accompanied by an exquisite choir. A melodrama directed by Melly Still, it has been a total sellout. A group of excellent actors are also the heroes of an interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s novel «Waves» that takes the form of a series of soliloquies at the Cottesloe. This was a rare theatrical experience, using devices such as Greek tragedy and dramatic irony to devastating effect. By the way and speaking of Greek tragedy, it is interesting how, in times of crisis, theater so often looks to the Greeks. The Sunday Times insinuated on its front page only yesterday that there may be something in reports that mobile phone users could eventually develop serious diseases including cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. The same newspaper also posed the question: «Is milk, the elixir of life, a cancer-causing liquid fat?» No wonder that a great rash of «Medea» and «Iphigeneia» shows has once again broken out. Now running in London, Neil LaBute’s «Bash» – a trilogy of modern Greek-style tragedies – has been set apart as «Show of the Week» by Time Out. The spirit of a dark Greek tragedy also hangs over a new interpretation of Goethe’s «Faust,» produced by Punchdrunk in collaboration with the National Theater. This bleak and violent play is set in a vast abandoned archive transformed into Faust’s heaven and hell as visitors wander freely through the five floors and remain «inside» the play as long as they wish. «Stamina, a stout pair of shoes and the ability to use your imagination,» the Guardian advised potential visitors. «The rewards are greater than anything Mephistopheles could ever offer,» according to the newspaper which rated the show as a five-star performance. Nevertheless I am pretty sure that New Yorkers will not see this production later this year. New York theater professionals aren’t happy to think of London as a tryout town for New York even though it actually is. Take all the successful musicals in the West End. Most of them move to Broadway sooner or later. «Rock’n’Roll» – not a musical, currently showing at the Duke of York’s Theater – is a production of a Tom Stoppard play spanning the recent history of Czechoslovakia between the Prague Spring Revolution of 1967 and the recent Velvet Revolution. Stoppard, an award-winning British playwright, was born in the former Czechoslovakia. And speaking of playwrights, the Nobel Laureate Harold Pinter was last week awarded the Legion d’Honneur by French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who happened to be in London on official business. What was completely unusual at this occasion was the fact that the French PM, who is an ardent critic of the war in Iraq, used this ceremony to remark upon a poem by Pinter titled «American Football» and subtitled «A Reflection on the Gulf War»: The poem begins as follows: «Hallelujah / It works/ We blew the shit out of them.» It is not just the spirit of Greek tragedy which hangs over the Medeas and the Iphigeneias in the theaters of London. Sometimes it is like experiencing Greek classical comedy. A new tragicomedy has been just announced: Prime Minister Tony Blair is to be indicted for crimes of aggression against Iraq, on stage. London’s Tricycle Theater has employed Philippe Sands QC to act for the prosecution. According to the artistic director of the theater, Nicholas Kent, the play is not provocative. «It is simply examining a war which had affected everybody’s lives in Britain,» he said. The play is to premiere in May. Good theater is not the only reason to enjoy London. The city has also made dramatic moves to transform itself into a more ecologically sustainable, pedestrian-friendly place. It has been doing more and more to reorient its streets toward people and away from cars. Now thinking of other extremes – say Athens – one can only hope that the capital’s new mayor, Nikitas Kaklamanis, will take the appropriate measures that lead as inevitably as retribution in Greek tragedy to a catharsis in Athens’s traffic chaos.

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